Kony2012: Public Service or Shameless Self Promotion?

Democrats and Republicans finally kiss and make up.

I sat down and watched the Kony2012 video from the group “Invisible Children” which has been making the rounds in the popular press recently. Kony2012 is a group (or single individual, it’s not clear) which calls for immediate action to arrest and convict Joseph Kony, leader of the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army. The LRA, a quasi-religious rebelgroup, has been responsible for nearly 30 years of wanton violence, child abduction and rampant warfare in Northern Uganda, the DRC and South Sudan.

Filmmaker Jason Russell has put together a slick 30 minute feature on why the world should be concerned about Joseph Kony and the LRA. It is well done piece that documents Mr. Russell’s journey to Uganda and the events which led to his eventual commitment to the issue of the LRA and child soldiers. More than 60 million people have viewed the video, and has turned into a (likely temporary) viral sensation.

The intent of the film is obscure for the first ten minutes, starting out with a primer on how people in the United States spread videos of their kids on YouTube and Facebook. Soon, after several grueling and annoying minutes watching videos of Mr. Russell’s own child, we figure out what the video. All is explained in a conversation between Russell and his 4 year old son.

The video is not without critics. I am one of them. On the surface, the video is a call to action from a concerned filmmaker. Mostly, though, it is less documentary and more a shameless advertisement for the filmmaker himself. Russell even goes the extra step to try to sell the viewer Kony “Action Packs” (it sounds like something that comes out of a cereal box). For $30, you get a button and a couple of wristbands, one for yourself and one for a friend. For $30 you can feel like you did something for helpless kids in Uganda.

The trouble is, though, that Kony hasn’t been in Uganda since 2005 and Ugandan kids won’t likely see much of that money.

While Kony is a perfect evil-doer in the deeply scary continent of Africa, he is certainly not the scariest killer of children. More than one million kids senselessly die every year from malaria. Another million die even more senselessly of diarrheal diseases from drinking contaminated water. More than 30 million kids have been orphaned due to HIV. Worse yet, many millions of the kids that didn’t die after getting sick suffer from serious (though poorly researched) developmental problems. These not only pose incredible problems for the kids themselves, but are a serious impediment to the development of poor countries. If the video is any indication, Russell appears unconcerned.

Though not to discount the horror the man has committed, by comparison Kony is a small threat. The image of Kony, however, feeds into Western perceptions of Africa as being a really, really frightening place (despite the fact that people like Robert Mugabe kill more people than Kony through irrisponsible leadership). Africa is seen to be as a place of continual conflict and instability. The only way to fix it is to send in white people to protect African kids from African adults. Not only is it the only way, but we have a duty to act immediately, or more kids will die.

In the manner that it uses social media, slick production values and a sense of absolute immediacy and simplicity, it is quite similar to campaigns such as the One campaign and Product (RED). It is also similar in that it uses African crises to sell itself and its own products, while giving little to the subjects concerned. Worse yet, it gives little airtime to the numerous African led groups working day and night to solve Africa’s seemingly insurmountable problems.

To me, the real problem with groups like Invisible Children is that it presents a world where the individual, voluntary and one time actions of consumers are an easy solution to the complex problems of developing countries and global health issues. What this does is distract policy conversations from creating sustained and cooperative strategies for poverty alleviation. It allows corporate and government entities to operate with little scrutiny, despite being responsible for (and profit from) creating conditions of entrenched inequality around the world.

No doubt, Russell will have his supporters. Americans like to feel good and it makes them feel good to send in a little money, watch a video, wear a bracelet and save kids in Africa.

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About Pete Larson

Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the Nagasaki University Institute for Tropical Medicine

One response to “Kony2012: Public Service or Shameless Self Promotion?”

  1. brainswithteeth says :

    I’ll admit, I somewhat fell for the campaign, but I still maintain that there’s a lot of zero-sum in the arguments regarding the intrinsic value of bringing an individual like Kony to light. Just because this happens, doesn’t mean that the other issues are glossed over.

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